APRIL 10, 2016
STRANGERS: Bill & Laura Johnson
LOCATION: Monell’s, 1235 6th Avenue North, Nashville, Tennessee
THEME: Meeting a couple that travels the United States in their motor home
Bill and Laura Johnson have no fixed abode.
That’s because their primary residence is a massive motor home that they’ve driven more than 417,000 miles across the United States. During a lunch interview, they told me they love the freedom of this lifestyle and the chance to keep meeting new people and exploring new places. We met up when coincidence had us both visiting Nashville the same Sunday.
Nashville is the capital of the Southern state Tennessee. It’s best known for a rich history of country music and being the home of the Grand Ole Opry. But one thing I learned during my visit is that the place has a growing restaurant scene, everything from comfort food to fine dining.
Laura suggested getting lunch at Monell’s in the city’s Germantown neighborhood. She promised it’d be an unusual lunch because the restaurant seats groups of strangers around a large dining table and brings out mounds of food family-style in huge bowls that are passed along. The Johnsons always stop in every visit to Nashville, seeing it as the perfect place to make new friends.
As I learned during lunch, over the years they’ve had all kinds of experiences with these new friends, ranging from naked bull riding in South Dakota’s Badlands; a near-shootout in Arizona; and helping a recently widowed friend — and nudist — visit the last two states she’d never seen.
I’d never seen Tennessee and I had the Sunday free to explore Nashville and meet Bill and Laura. From the outside, Monell’s looks like a beautiful private home. It’s a two-story redbrick building on a quiet residential street. There’s a gorgeous sprawling garden outside with a well-kept pond. But for the large “Monell’s” sign in the garden, it’d be easy to pass by the restaurant.
It’s a popular place, judging by the crowds waiting for one of the tables to open up. As I stepped inside I instantly recognized Bill and Laura from a picture they had sent me.
Her husband Bill has a dry, intelligent sense of humor that caught me off guard at first. He’s the kind of man that probably inspired the phrase “He doesn’t suffer fools.”
Bill has perfected the art of the punchline, telling stories or acting in ways that seem serious, only to end with a laugh. When he heard my English accent his eyes narrowed and he said warily, “So you’re a foreigner?” Sweat started to gather on my forehead. Did this guy not like immigrants like myself? Was I in trouble? Then I saw the twinkle in his eye. “Good!” he said with a smile.
Laura is less prone to quips but is an unfailingly friendly person, softly spoken but radiating natural warmth. She rolled her eyes affectionately, used to Bill’s type of humor.
They’re a cute couple. Laura is short but packs a lot of presence, with long flowing blond hair, sparkling eyes and an outgoing persona. Bill is several inches taller and solidly built, speaking with a quiet but assured voice. His mustache, thick head of hair and rugged looks are reminiscent of Clark Gable, if Gable were a farmer in the Old West.
As we walked to our table, Laura instinctively reached out her hand to walk with her man. We were seated a large rectangular table with room for about a dozen people. Sitting down, Laura said, “Although the food is great, we really appreciate getting the opportunity to meet new people.”
But there was hardly time for introductions before the bonanza of food came out.
Several waiters descended on the table, offering what seemed like endless bowls of food. Here’s just some of what they brought out that day: biscuits, cornbread, homemade preserve, skillet fried chicken, sliced beef with gravy, fried catfish, cheese grits, mashed potato, barbecue pork ribs, all washed down with gallons of iced tea and finished with slices of chocolate pie.
“I see those eyes!” said one of the waiters, laughing as he saw my eyes bulge in cartoon horror at the mound of calorie-packed chow. “You definitely want to pace yourself,” he said.
Unlike almost all my interviews where the menu is traditionally structured, this was truly a free-for-all in terms of what I ate and when. Some of the items were a miss — the mashed potatoes were a little grainy, and the beef in gravy missing much flavor — but others were amazing. The fried chicken and catfish were absolute highlights, and the BBQ ribs impossible to resist over-eating.
There was also too much food. The philosophy at Monell’s is to take as much as you want but only as much as you’ll eat. So after loading up my plate with a combination of ingredients that would confuse most chefs, I focused on tidying my plate while I quizzed Bill and Laura on their lives.
“We can certainly eat in our motor home,” said Laura as she took food from the various bowls around the table. “We have a small kitchen. But we like to go out to eat.”
The couple travel the roads of America with their two dogs and tow along a jeep for when they want to drive around in something smaller. They usually park their home far outside of cities, preferring to visit rural areas and instead enjoy nature: Laura and Bill are big fans of the outdoors.
Bill, 65, was born in Nebraska while Laura, 60, is from Minnesota, in a suburb of Minneapolis. Bill moved to Laura’s area when he was about 14, though they didn’t meet for several years. The first time they were in the same room together was at a wedding where Bill was doing some photography as a favor to a friend, but they didn’t meet that day. “But we have photographic proof we were in the same room at the same time,” said Laura.
They did not get together until after Laura had moved to Fort Myers, Florida. She’d moved for the better weather and was enjoying life in the sun. One Christmas she came back to Minnesota for the holidays. Her family was eager for Laura to return full-time, so they figured getting her to fall in love with a Minnesotan was the way to do it. While she was back, they set her up blind dates.
“I was the last one they set her up with,” said Bill, laughing. “After about six or seven guys they’d run out of all the good guys, so they hit the bottom of the barrel with me.”
The duo went skiing with Laura’s brother-in-law for about three hours on that Christmas Eve day. “It went well. I was intrigued enough that we committed to writing each other once I went back to Florida,” Laura said. “Then in late January he showed up at my doorstep.”
“I wined her, dined her, and sixty-nined her for five consecutive days,” said Bill with a wink. Then on the fifth day I proposed to her on Fort Myers beach pier. Ask her what her answer was,” he said, looking to his wife.
Laura smiled. “I asked him, ‘What took you so long? I knew on day three. And I did.”
So Laura gave her notice at work and eventually the couple settled back in Minnesota, though Laura had made Bill promise to take her back to Florida every winter. They still go back to Fort Myers once a year to recreate the proposal at the since-reconstructed pier.
They lived this routine of Minnesota and Florida for a while, with Bill building a manufacturing company that he said made them “cash rich, but real estate poor.”
So about 15 years ago they decided to get a farm in South Dakota, a state they love for its expansive, beautiful geography and quiet lifestyle. They moved out there, putting their eldest son — one of three children — in charge of the company. And that’s when they had the freedom to take to the road and explore America by living in a mobile home for many months at a time.
“I started living in vehicles when I was in junior high school,” said Bill, “I was kicked out my house repeatedly so I was used to sleeping in cars. Then I went from cars to campers, then motor coaches. There’s something appealing about being trailer trash,” he said with a glint in his eye.
After lunch, Bill and Laura showed me around their vehicle.
Their home on wheels is impressively large. It’s at least eight feet across and when parked can be extended out to at least 10 feet. There are two large, comfortable leather chairs up front, with a massive leather sofa and another chair in the living room area. Nearby is the small kitchen, as well as a liquor cabinet and plenty of cleverly hidden storage space throughout their home.
Further back is the bathroom which features a surprisingly large shower, and then the bedroom which Laura proudly said is her dominion for decorating. The whole vehicle is rigged up so that they can stay well connected sending emails, faxes, and making calls while they travel.
Back at Monell’s, Laura said that the couple were leaving Nashville that night. They had rough plans of their next destination, but she said they prefer to keep their agenda open. “Typically we like to leave our plans loose, partly because you never know when you’ll like a spot and want to stay longer, and partly because sometimes bad weather means you have to get going.”
Their travels have led to some unusual experiences over the years.
Once, they made friends with a woman called Jean, who was married at the time. They had been traveling and trying to visit every one of the 50 United States. Jean’s husband died before they had time to finish the last two. So, Bill and Laura offered to drive her to see them. It was a journey that took them across nine states to reach both locations, covering more than 7,600 miles.
“Oh, and Jean was a nudist, I forgot to tell you that,” Bill said with a laugh.
During the same months-long journey, the trio almost got into a gunfight in Arizona. They’d stopped for a few days in Tucson and decided to check out a local cowboy bar. It was a dark Saturday night in a not-so-great part of town. The motor home was having brake issues, so Bill left the two women in the bar and went to go fix it. He put on his work gear and clambered underneath the vehicle. Moments later, he saw a car pull up next to him. A door opened. Someone got out, walked around, then got back in and left. Bill instinctively knew that the visitor was up to no good.
“It doesn’t say stupid up here,” he said to me, pointing to his head. “So I went back into the home and got the stuff I needed for repairs, and then I also got Fred.”
Fred is his gun. He went back outside and fixed the brake problem, warily awaiting the return of the visitor. He heard footsteps again. He got ready to fight. Then he heard Laura calling out to say she and Jean had returned early. They’d gotten an escort from an off-duty sheriff, who said he brought the women back because he’d spotted two drug dealers pull up in a car next to the motor home. “I told the sheriff, ‘I wasn’t worried, I had Fred with me.’ He says, ‘Me too’ and pointed to his gun. We’d have got ’em,” Bill said.
Some of their other experiences aren’t as hair-raising, but still interesting.
Like the time Bill and Laura stopped in the tiny town of Interior in the South Dakota Badlands. Interior has a handful of bars and other buildings, located on what Bill called “beautiful but tortured earth.”
Bill had heard the legend of “Radar,” a massive bull who would be brought into town for the locals and visitors to ride. He made his way into the Wagon Wheel Bar and saw six old gentlemen at the bar giving him a wary look. Bill told them he was a farmer, and they were relieved, fearing he was another tourist. They had some beers — even though Bill’s not much of a beer drinker he couldn’t resist the 75 cent price tag. Eventually he moved the conversation on to Radar.
The locals told him Radar had been put to pasture, and Bill said that’d disappoint Laura who wanted to ride the bull. At the moment his wife walked in. Two of the locals then ducked out the bar, and a while later they returned, wrestling Radar inside.
“All eyes were on Laura, and she had this look of horror on her face,” said Bill. “This old boy says, ‘Ma’am, you’re gonna ride that bull now.’”
Radar was much bigger than Laura had anticipated: 1,800 pounds, six foot across at the shoulders and with horns spanning 50 inches. “So the old boy says if Laura rides him topless, she gets a free drink. Laura says, ‘Like hell I will! The old boy says he didn’t mean any offense. That’s when Laura says, ‘If I ride him at all…”
“…I’ll be riding him naked,” said Laura, finishing the punchline. The old boy then said Laura would drink free all night if she did that. And that’s how the Johnsons ended up without a bar tab that night, as well as six very happy old cowboys. There’s a poster of Laura riding Radar that’s pinned up at the bar, and Laura carries around cards of her adventure, featuring her in the nude atop Radar.
Leaving the bar, the Johnsons ran into a family with eight little girls. The father said they were going to the Wagon Wheel Bar for some sarsaparilla. The Johnsons nodded their approval. Back at Monell’s, Bill laughed at the unspoken fact that “nobody told the guy that he missed by a minute all his girls seeing a naked woman riding a bull.”
I didn’t need any sarsaparilla at Monell’s. I was full.
“You didn’t clean your plate!” Bill said. He was right. Our lunch was drawing to an end and we were the last three of the strangers still at the table. As we got ready to leave, the Johnsons said there are few disadvantages to their mobile life.
“You can only fit so many possessions in the home, but that is also an advantage because it forces you to reassess priorities,” Laura said. The reduced space also makes taking on hobbies difficult, so she took up things that don’t require much room, such as knitting and reading.
I queried Bill on whether gas prices make the lifestyle expensive, but he shook his head and said that the hundreds of dollars it takes to fill up the fuel tank can last for more than a thousand miles.
Still, he said that moving such a large vehicle around the States constantly means there’s always a technical problem or two. He showed me a pages-long list of items that have gone wrong with the vehicle, everything from wiring issues to faulty gears. Many had check-marks next to them after being resolved, but the list shows that maintenance is a never-ending issue.
Traveling for a lifestyle also means that while the couple get to make a lot of new friends, it can be harder to maintain those friendships than if they lived in the same area year-round. “But the advantages certainly fair outweigh any disadvantages,” Laura said. “We’re curious about people, things and places, so we love the opportunity to make new connections.”